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Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Method vs. Meisner

Method vs Meisner, Part 1: The Meisner Technique



As an acting coach for movies and TV shows, I work with actors that are trained in different methodologies. So I see how different training affects different actors. I never advocate one technique over the others simply because I have seen brilliant performances from actors trained by Sanford Meisner and Lee Strasberg and Uta Hagen and Harold Clurman and Sonia Moore, and many others. 

This does not mean, however, that all these techniques are the same. They most decidedly are not.  Each has its own strengths and weaknesses.  But rather than argue about which technique is best, I prefer to examine how they can work together to provide an actor with a complete "toolkit". 

Lee Strasberg
For the purposes of this blog I am going to discuss only two techniques: Method and Meisner.  I use these two, not because they are better than everything else, but simply because they seem to be completely opposite from one another (at least on the surface) and therefore, compliment each other.  Also, they are the two techniques that I see the most actors trained in, in movies and TV today.  Lee Strasberg created The Method and Sanford Meisner created The Meisner Technique.
Sanford Meisner

First up - The Meisner Technique...




Meisner trained actors, excel at working off other actors. Nobody listens and reacts as truthfully as a Meisner actor. Nobody. With Meisner, it’s always real. It may not always be brilliant but it’s always real. Meisner training helps you enter a scene “emotionally full” and it helps anchor you in the imaginary circumstances, which trigger more real emotions throughout the scene.  Where the Meisner technique is weaker is when the other actor is not very good (or not there at all!). Meisner actors tend to have trouble with that because they have less to work off of.


Meisner's "Repetition" exercises are the Sit-Ups of the Meisner Technique. If you do them once or twice, or even every day for a week, you will not get much of a result. But, if you do them for weeks and months and eventually years, the results will be considerable. Stick with it and it will pay off. The only difficulty is that (unlike Method) you can't practice the exercises by yourself.  You need another actor to work with. After you get a handle on Repetition you'll add in "Independent Activities" and then "Emotional Preparation".  These are what I call the three pillars of the Meisner Technique.  For more on how the Meisner Technique works, either read up on it or get intoCLASS!  In the meantime, here's an example of the Meisner Technique being used in the workplace...


Flashback: Ten years ago.  I’m coaching a celebrity actress in a national TV show. I say “celebrity” because she really hadn’t trained as an actress. She was hired because she was an internationally known model and I was asked to focus on her during the course of the season. I had introduced her to some of the concepts of the Meisner Technique and we had done some exercises, but that’s as far as we had gotten. 

I was working with her in her trailer,
(No, it wasn't THIS trailer!)
  on a scene in which she was supposed to slap another actor and she was stressing about it. I pointed out that the director had told me that she wasn’t going to really slap him because it wasn’t necessary from the angle they were shooting it from. This relaxed her a bit but when we ran through the scene she had trouble with her reaction to having slapped him (which, in the story, should have been a complex emotional response to having hit him). 

When we got to set and shot the Master shot I realized she wasn’t cutting it. Her reaction after the slap was flat. When it was time to shoot her close-up, the director told her some of the emotions he thought she should be feeling (and even described what he thought her face should look like!) but to no avail. She was becoming more and more self-conscious and less believable with every take.

Well, we were losing light as they say, the crew was losing patience, and the director was giving me a look like “can’t you do something? What are we paying you for?” I resisted the urge to say "she would have been fine if you hadn't told her what faces you wanted her to make!" And instead I smiled confidently and started to walk toward the actress when I had an idea.  I stopped and turned to the other actor in the scene.  I took him aside, the one that was getting slapped, and I asked him if he would mind “taking one for the team”. He was a pro who understood immediately what I was getting at and agreed. In other words, he would step in a little when she slapped him so that he would actually get hit! The only thing I said to the actress was to “remember your training, live in the imaginary circumstances and stay in the scene no matter what”.

All I can say is, you can’t believe the complexity of her reaction when she slapped him. She was shocked that she had hit him and a little scared. She still had the residue anger from the scene and all the emotions were real and evident in her eyes. After she slapped him she stared at him for about ten seconds, eyes full of emotion, until the director said "Cut, print, BEAUTIFUL, moving on!” And the director was so pleased he actually gave me a cigar! Later, when I watched the dailies, I couldn’t believe how well she had done. There is no substitute for real emotion. And all because she reacted truthfully (a la Meisner) to what actually happened in the scene. But the best part is that it was a damn good (Cuban) cigar! 


So this was an example of the Meisner Technique helping an actor on set. But this doesn’t mean I think a Meisner trained actor is complete – I don’t. I am brought back again to two master teachers, Meisner and Strasberg. I depend heavily on both of these teachers when I teach my own classes. They complement each perfectly. They both have weaknesses, and they both compensate for each other’s weaknesses.


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